Californians were first in the country to know radic-chio, first to explore the tender mixed greens that now come in plastic bags at every supermarket and way ahead of the curve on the recent iceberg-is-cool-again wave. We also, for better or worse, bequeathed sprout salads and wilted spinach salads to the world. We are a state of salad eaters.
But not every green leaf that comes along is meant to go into a salad, even around here. Consider the lowly escarole. A member of the chicory family, it has neither the velvety softness of butter lettuce nor the crispness of iceberg, neither the pepperiness of arugula nor the tang of mizuna. It doesn't even have the bright freshness of generic green and red leaf lettuces. As restaurateur Piero Selvaggio puts it: "Escarole has no redeeming value raw."
Notice he said "raw." When cooked, escarole becomes another green entirely. Suddenly, it's interesting even to Italian-born Selvaggio, something worthy of sharing the table with one of the remarkable red wines at his Santa Monica restaurant, Valentino.
"Red wine sometimes needs a challenge," Selvaggio says. "Escarole has a bitterness that matches so well with red wine. It's funny because escarole is something I grew up with. It's one of those all-purpose vegetables. I remember Mama making broth with escarole and rice with escarole. It's very adaptable."
Selvaggio predicts good things for escarole--he calls it the Merlot of the vegetable world. "For years, Merlot was considered a wine that was a useful blend," he explains, "but then it took over."
Can escarole achieve the fame of arugula? Its lack of salad worthiness could hold it back. But then, when it gets cooked, all bets are off.
One of the best ways to serve escarole is quickly sauteed with olive oil and garlic. It's a simple supper dish. Add a sprinkling of dried red chiles or red pepper flakes and just a splash of vinegar to sharpen the flavor. Or emphasize the nuttiness of the green by tossing in bits of applewood-smoked bacon.
In Madeleine Kamman's latest revision of her seminal cookbook, "The New Making of a Cook" (Morrow), cooked escarole is the star of four recipes. Combined with cream and prosciutto, it's spread on polenta, topped with fontina cheese and baked; in a pasta dish, it's blanched and tossed with fennel bulbs and fresh cavatelli. Kamman also suggests a souffleed omelet in which the eggs wrap sauteed escarole, aromatic with dried orange peel, fennel seeds and a jolt of anchovy. She calls it "La Bella Scarolata," or "the pretty thing filled with escarole." Her book's most elegant escarole dish is "Escarole Souffleed Timbales With Parma Cream," which is a fancy way of serving the green. It's a method that meets with Selvaggio's approval.
At Valentino, in a timbale with sweetbreads and black truffles, the stuff of luxury, it is the humble escarole that defines the dish--and draws out the best in the wine. Even without the pricey truffles and troublesome sweetbreads, escarole makes a terrific timbale, the perfect appetizer or side dish to pair with roast quail or chicken or even grilled fish for a dinner party. Serve your best red, skip the traditional California salad and this green won't let you down.
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3 heads escarole
1 bunch green onions, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin
1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
2 tablespoons butter, plus
1 tablespoon melted butter
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons bread crumbs
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Shaved black or white truffles or truffle oil, optional
Wash escarole heads, slice crosswise, wash again, drain and dry.
Saute green onions in olive oil. Add chile flakes, escarole, 2 tablespoons butter and salt and pepper to taste. Saute over medium heat until leaves wilt, 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside.
Coat 6 souffle cups with melted butter and bread crumbs. Place small amount wilted escarole in each cup, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese, then repeat layers.
Cook at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Unmold timbales on hot plate and serve with shaved truffles or drizzle of truffle oil if desired.
Food stylist: Norman Stewart